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Buying a suit: Know the difference between made to measure, custom, and bespoke

What kind of suit is right for you

Man adjusting his tie wearing a watch
Ruthson Zimmerman / Unsplash

The world of buying a suit can be extremely overwhelming if you aren’t in the know. Size, color, pattern, cut, fabric, lapels, pockets, lining, buttons, pleats, cuffs, just to name a few things that need to be at the front of your mind. Of course, you will likely have, at the very least, a salesperson guiding you through the process of getting the right suit. However, just like walking onto a car lot for the first time, if you don’t have a basic knowledge of the suit world, you can be taken advantage of. That is why we do our very best to ensure that you have all the knowledge you need to get the best suit for your needs. Next up is the somewhat confusing industry jargon surrounding made-to-measure vs. bespoke or custom suits.

Now, these terms have seemed to evolve over the years, so instead of using our base of knowledge from years of reporting on the suit world, we reached out to one of the leaders in the field. Alan David Horowitz, fifth-generation owner of New York City’s Alan David Custom has had his feet on the ground for decades. He has helped thousands of men look their best. He sat down with us to give us the low down on what you need to know and how to discern the difference between the kinds of suits you can get. One thing to keep in mind is that we left off-the-rack off the list due to the easy understanding that it is simply the nested suits you run into in your run-of-the-mill retail shop.

What is made-to-measure?

man in pink jacket
The Lazy Artist Gallery / Pexels

The next step up from the suits you will get when you simply grab a suit off the hooks lining the outside wall is made-to-measure. The simplest way to think about this form of suit buying is like creating a video game character on your RPG. There are templates you can use, but you are simply making small changes to a suit that already exists. The salesperson and the tailor are simply taking a jacket in a basic size and altering it where they can. Alan Horowitz gives his explanation of MTM.

“Made-to-measure is taking that pattern that was created from off-the-rack, doing certain modifications to that pattern, and then cutting it. For example, if someone comes in and you put a 40-regular jacket on him, but let’s say the sleeves are too short, that’s a basic alteration. You put in the computer that you need the sleeves a half inch longer. In the pants, he’s a 34, but let’s say the person has a 32 waist because his waist is narrow. You put in the computer that you need the waist two inches smaller, and it’s cut two inches smaller.” David goes on to talk about the cons of made-to-measure. “Where you lose made-to-measure is in the shoulders and the posture – Those are the two most important aspects of a suit in terms of fit. Unfortunately, those are the things that made-to-measure do not really interpret very well. Same thing with the pants, if a man has a prominent seat, needing eight or nine inches when a typical seat is six inches, made-to-measure, can’t do much there.”

What is bespoke?

man with beard in suit
Gursher Gill / Pexels

Bespoke is a bit of an old-school idea. If you remember the scene in The Kingsman where the mentor takes the rookie agent into a tailor shop, there is an old man ready to get him fitted. The idea is that the customer walks in and picks out a fabric with the pattern he is looking for, and the tailor goes to work. He does all the measuring and all the cutting before creating the entire suit by hand. The world has changed now, and there are new ways to do everything.

“Back in the day,” Horowitz says. “The term bespoke, a person would go into a room full of fabric, and he would come out with a suit. One person did the suit, and it was 60 to 70 hours of handwork; the whole garment was done by hand, even if it didn’t need certain elements to be done by hand. For example, the pant bottoms or sewing up the jacket lining were all done by hand, not machine.”

What is custom?

Man in suit with gloves
Wes Cam / Pexels

Made-to-measure is not a personal enough process as it focuses simply on those that are at least close to being built, like a mannequin. Bespoke is an antiquated and unrealistic business model as there is no way to produce enough suits to provide for all your customers while throwing a week and a half to two weeks’ worth of work at a single suit. So what is the answer? Custom. Splitting it down the middle and doing some of the work with a machine and some of the work by hand. You still choose your fabric, and a tailor spends time measuring your body and ensuring the fit is perfect, from shoulders to ankles.

“The term bespoke has gotten lost, so we use the term custom,” Horowitz clarifies. “We have the ability to do just about every alteration that bespoke needs without it being a full bespoke. We take the elements that are so important from bespoke. And we still do that by hand. We take measurements by hand, but more importantly, the pattern is created by hand. The canvas, when it’s sewn into the jacket, we do that by hand, sewing up the armhole because you need a certain amount of ease there.”

Which is right for you?

Man adjusting his tie
Dinielle De Veyra / Pexels

Like most things in menswear, the choice comes down to preference and budget. If you are in need of a last-minute suit, you’re going to have to hope that something off-the-rack and maybe made-to-measure is going to work in the turnaround time. If you want to really spend a ton of money on a suit and wait (keep in mind you will have to keep the body in shape too) for a while to get your suit, then old-school bespoke tailors may still exist in the secret corners of Saville Row. But the best choice for most people, and the recommendation from a guy like Alan Horowitz, is to go for the custom suit.

“Full custom is good for the guy who doesn’t want to spend a mortgage payment on his suit,” he says. “But he is a difficult fit and wants and needs that attention. He’s willing to pay more for a suit because it is more expensive than just a regular one; a made-to-measure suit is going to fit better, and you’re going to have nicer fabrics. A guy who doesn’t mind paying more but knows that he’s getting value is the ideal customer. At custom, you’re getting about 85% of what full bespoke really is. But you’re paying 50% less, and you’re only paying maybe 25% or 30% more than you are for made-to-measure. That’s why full custom kind of fits right in the middle.”

There you have it; you are now armed with the knowledge of the different types of suit-making. Now, the search is on to find a tailor to make you the perfect suit. When you are ready, Alan David Custom is always ready to help.

Mark McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
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